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LANL Plan B Cost $800M

By John Fleck / Journal Staff Writer on Wed, Aug 8, 2012

Los Alamos National Laboratory’s proposed alternative to building a multibillion dollar plutonium laboratory would require $800 million over the next decade to upgrade existing buildings to do the lab’s nuclear weapons work, according to lab documents.

The proposal includes doing work in a smaller existing laboratory, shipping some plutonium for chemical analysis to a lab in California, and construction of a $120 million tunnel to allow lab workers to move plutonium from building to building at Los Alamos without the security and safety risks associated with above-ground transport.

One small plutonium-capable lab building, the Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building, would require nearly $200 million in upgrades to handle larger quantities of plutonium, according to the proposal.

The lab developed what is being called “Plan B” after the Obama administration in February recommended halting work on a major new plutonium laboratory at Los Alamos. It represents the latest in a series of efforts by the lab and its federal managers to sustain the ability to maintain aging U.S. nuclear weapons and manufacture new weapon components if needed.

Much of the work is currently done in the lab’s 60-year-old Chemistry and Metallurgy Research building, which officials have acknowledged for more than a decade is subject to extreme earthquake risks. But plans to replace the building have been repeatedly delayed in the face of rising cost estimates.

In February, the Obama administration recommended that Congress indefinitely postpone building the new building and asked the lab to come up with a “Plan B” for carrying out the work in existing facilities.

The resulting proposal, lab officials warned in recent briefings, carries with it the risk that the nation would have limited capacity to build new nuclear weapon components – the plutonium “pits” at the core of warheads and bombs.

Critics argue the lab is overstating that risk.

A National Nuclear Security Administration official released a statement saying the agency is still studying the lab’s proposal and finalizing its response. “The revised plutonium strategy will utilize existing facilities at multiple sites,” spokesman Josh McConaha said in the statement. “It is likely, but not certain, that we will use Superblock at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Device Assembly Facility in Nevada, and the new Radiological Laboratory Utility Office Building at Los Alamos National Laboratory. However, nothing has been settled and we are working to finalize the details at this point.”

The lab’s study of alternatives to building the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement lab was completed in April.

Its details have remained closely guarded as federal officials sort out what to do after deciding the replacement building’s rapidly rising costs were busting the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget. But in a pair of briefings in June, one for an internal lab oversight committee and a second to congressional staff, senior lab managers outlined the details of the plan.

The Journal obtained summaries of the briefings after they were posted on a federal website.

In the past, the lab and federal officials said the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement building was needed to meet a requirement that the lab have the capability to manufacture 50 to 80 plutonium “pits” per year – the round cores made of the dangerously radioactive metal which are used to initiate a nuclear weapons’ deadly blast.

The lab’s proposed alternative, using existing lab space to do the work, would limit the production capability to 30 pits per year, according to the briefing document, with some risk that even that production level would not be achievable. The present capacity is 10 pits per year, according to the lab briefing document, which would rise to 30 pits per year by the early 2020s.

Lab critic Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group argued Tuesday the document overstates the risk that the lab would not be able to meet pit production targets, noting that in the past the lab has claimed the capability of making 50 pits per year, even without construction of the new plutonium lab.

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